I heard a story one time (a quite old story) about a man and a woman playing a little game of something like truth-or-dare at a dinner party. The man, allegedly and, in all likelihood, inappropriately identified as Winston Churchill, poses the following hypothetical to the woman, “Madam, would you sleep with me for 5 million pounds?” The woman considers the offer and replies that she would. Following up his initial offer with slightly more favorable terms, the man suggests that perhaps only five pounds would be necessary? Outraged, the woman responds, “Five pounds! What kind of a woman do you think I am?” “Madam,” he answers, “we’ve already established that. Now we are merely haggling about the price.” The unfortunate lady in this story has compromised her principles. In other words, she sold out.
Ben, Andy, and countless others have walked the same road—they brought an idea into the world, nurtured it, and watched it grow into something above and beyond their expectations. And it wasn’t just theirs. Thousands of other people came to know and love their creation. Thousands of people who were hurt and disappointed when one day, somewhere a handful of people gathered in a room and decided to disrupt their lives based not on what was best for them, the users and customers, but on what was best for those few people in that small room.
Except it wasn’t. Ben and Andy and many, many others have found, to their dismay, that the new owners didn’t quite care about their baby the same way they did. That, despite assurances to the contrary, the product wasn’t being improved, it was deteriorating; that the community wasn’t growing, it was dying; that, worst of all, they had inadvertently done something they never, ever wanted to do: they sold out.
Speaking at XOXO, Cabel Sasser thinks he knows why smart, creative, thoughtful people sometimes sell out: that’s how you win at business, right?
Is it? It’s worth asking ourselves that question, both as creators of something other people care about and as users of things other people have created. How do you win at business? What made you (or them) leave the (perceived) security of being an employee under someone else? Understanding what it means to win at business means taking a deep dive into people’s complex, nuanced, and, usually, hidden motivations.
For some, owning a business isn’t a voluntary, high-risk, high-reward proposition. Imagine your local, father-son plumbing operation. Sometimes winning at business just means putting food on the table. For others, the stakes are higher. Winning may require being not simply profitable but highly profitable. It might mean having access to the privileges and favors and prestige that come from being known as a successful businessman or woman. Others have grander ambitions yet, hoping to put a dent in the universe, like Steve Jobs, or put a man on Mars, like Elon Musk. Starting and selling a two-bit t-shirt company like little, ol’ Cotton Bureau would be child’s play.
Would you like to know what winning at business means to us? It means making t-shirts that we can be proud of; it means having integrity in our actions and conversations, publicly and privately; it means having the freedom—and the responsibility—to make the hard decisions; it means building a company that we can work at making a little bit better every day, overcoming the challenges that come with success (or failure), and, yeah, making a couple bucks along the way.
Is Cotton Bureau different than other companies? That’s up to you to decide. Talk is cheap. Maybe the only way we’re different is that we treat our customers like adults. We won’t hide the harsh facts of life from you. This entire system is built on the idea that in the titanic collisions of business, customers are mere collateral damage. To be surprised or, worse, disappointed when you, the customer, are ignored is childish. Even our favorite companies are not immune to the capitalist dilemma. Pixar makes the best movies in the world—and they sell mountains of merchandise that we’d all be better off without. Apple is the most profitable company on earth—and they must continually chase fiscal growth at the expense of what is best for their customers lest they be penalized by Wall Street and grumpy shareholders for not providing an adequate return.
Will Cotton Bureau ever sell out? We hope not. Cabel said Panic has been approached by Apple, Facebook, and Google… and immediately turned each of them down because it didn’t feel right. Like Panic, we love what we’re doing here and want to “fill the middle with as many weird plot twists as we can”. We’re ecstatic for Andy and Ben as they attempt to resurrect their ideas and communities. (Full disclosure: we’re taking care of t-shirts for Andy’s Kickstarter campaign.)
Here’s the truth: Cotton Bureau has never sought or accepted outside investment. We didn’t set out to grow fast and flip the company for a quick profit. We’ve earnestly and frankly laid out our motivations before you. We can’t promise they’ll never change. Ultimately, we—like you—have to do what is best for ourselves. We trust that the business model we created is sustainable, fulfilling, and fair to everyone involved. After all, we agree with Cabel: maybe this is the best time of our lives.